Dawson appeared on many of the top shows at the time in the early 60s such as “Steve Allen,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” but a wonderful acting performance as a military prisoner in the film “King Rat” led to his sitcom role as Peter Newkirk, the cockney POW in a German prison camp on the classic CBS sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes” which really introduced him to American audiences. The program was a ratings winner from 1965 to 1971 prompting Dawson to quip “we ran 6 years…a year longer than Hitler.”
Dawson continued to be in huge demand with a film role in the war film “The Devil’s Brigade” alongside William Holden and “Munster Go Home”, a film based on the popular TV series “The Munsters”. He was a frequent guest on game and talk shows. His other series, as a regular, included “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and “The New Dick Van Dyke Show.”
It was Dawson’s popularity as a regular on the game shows “Match Game” and “Match Game PM” that prompted Monty Hall to hire him to host his (Dawson’s) very first national game show “Masquerade Party.” After a brief run, Dawson continued on both versions of “Match Game” until 1976 when he changed the landscape of daytime television and found his greatest fame (and countless awards) as the charming and kissing host of “Family Feud.” “Feud,” the original version hosted by Dawson ran on ABC and in syndication from 1976 until 1985. At the height of its success, “Feud” was both the number one daytime show and the number one syndicated television show becoming one of the most popular game shows ever, airing eleven times a week (5 daytime and 6 night time), as well as over 20 primetime specials featuring the top celebrities of that era. “Feud” and Dawson took America by storm and made Dawson television’s highest paid game show host.
Dawson was so successful as emcee, Johnny Carson and NBC were considering him as a replacement for Johnny on NBC’s “The Tonight Show”, when Johnny was considering retirement. Dawson hosted “Tonight” for an entire week and the show achieved a huge bump in ratings that it hadn’t seen in years. Ultimately Carson decided not to retire and stayed on as host.
During the height of his success on “Feud”, Dawson met contestant Gretchen Johnson when she appeared on the show with her family. They dated for several years, got married and had a daughter, Shannon in 1990.
In 1987, Dawson co-stared with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Stephen King sci-fi feature film, “The Running Man”. Dawson received critical acclaim as a ruthless game show host, Damon Killian, garnering such reviews as “The greatest villain since Darth Vader”. The film is still considered a cult classic.
In 1994, at the age of 61, Dawson returned to host “Family Feud” once again. Then after decades in front of the camera, Dawson semi-retired in 2000.
“He was loved by millions of Americans as a television icon, but loved even more as a husband, a father, and grandfather by his family,” said his son Gary.
Dawson is survived by sons Mark and Gary (from first wife, Diana Dors) his wife Gretchen, daughter Shannon and four grandchildren.